Book by James Goldman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
National Theatre – Olivier, London SE1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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Near the beginning of Follies there is a signature moment when the elderly show girls, attending a 30-year reunion in their old theatre, descend a staircase in line whilst being serenaded, for one last time, by their old MC. This number is often staged on a grand staircase as a campy showbiz Entrance, but here, director Dominic Cooke, has the 'Beautiful Girls' descend instead a rusty fire escape. It is emblematic of just how much Cooke has got the real measure of this great musical, probably Sondheim's masterpiece, for this is anti-nostalgia and it reminds us that while the past is always with us, we need to let go of it, confront our illusions and move on. It is not Hello Dolly.
In James Goldman's fine book, flames of passion are rekindled by two mismatched couples attending a reunion. As in Chekhov, this quartet love the wrong person and it has made their lives a misery, at least for those that let it. Sondheim's great achievement here was to make this a musical about middle-aged disillusionment yet set it amidst the lavish world of theatrical illusion. The past selves of the four leads are embodied by younger actors who shadow them and to add to the poignancy, ghostly figures of showgirls stalk the stage beside them.
Vicki Mortimer's glorious designs anchor the piece firmly in 1971 when the show premiered. The reunion cocktail takes place amidst crumbling plasterwork and broken seats and the revolve comes into its own for the cocktail conversations and for keeping this huge multi-character story on track. The costumes blend authentic 1971 horrors with turquoise explosions of excess in the fantasy sequences, where statuesque showgirls with enormous butterfly-wing costumes parade like peacocks before huge chiffon like drapes.
Sondheim always broke new boundaries and here the book songs, which advance the plot, reveal the dilemmas of the characters but they're counterpointed by pastiche numbers of the kinds of songs the characters would have sung in their heyday and these reveal their inner truths. The styles of a range of songwriters are lovingly recreated and the second half features four fully blown Follies numbers, one for each of the leads, but all stylistically contrasting.
Phyllis is reborn as a Rita Hayworth type vamp in 'Jessie and Lucy'. Janie Dee shines as the acerbic New York socialite whose every word is drenched in bitterness and yet she manages to make her the most sympathetic of the four.
Imelda Staunton, in a drastic change of tone from Martha and Mama Rose, gives us the vulnerable and defeated housewife Sally. At one stage she looks the ghosts directly in the eye, the cue to us that she has finally lost it. She delivers the show's biggest hit 'Losing My Mind' as if she already has, giving it an intense charge.
Peter Forbes is utterly moving too as her devoted husband Buddy. His endless attempts to satisfy Sally having failed he has taken a young lover. He totally nails the tongue twisting 'Buddy's Blues' which choreographer Bill Deamer stages as a frenetic vaudeville chase routine and which is a total blast. Deamer's work throughout is exquisite.
Lastly there is Ben played here by 3 time Olivier winner Philip Quast whose clear baritone and eloquent ease are perfect for the urbane UN diplomat. His Follies number 'Live, laugh, love' is a plush dancing-girls affair where he tries to convince us that his life is rosy. It's a car crash in slow motion, the apotheosis of marriage break down.
As a break from the couples' angst we also get a cascade of brilliant pastiche 'turns' by the old troupers: Di Botcher starts 'Broadway Baby' as a conversation; Geraldine Fitzgerald's Solange makes 'Ah Paris' touching as well as louche and Tracie Bennett's Carlotta, starts 'I'm Still Here' seated among a group of loving acolytes before she resumes her rightful place under a blistering follow-spot. Most touchingly the retired ENO star Josephine Barstow delivers the quivering Lehar pastiche 'One More Kiss' sharing the spotlight with her younger, full-voiced, ghost. They send a shiver down your spine as does this whole show.